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Let's Do Federal Policy Right This Time

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The clock has run out on the "populist crusade'' of George Bush and Lamar Alexander to "reinvent America's schools.'' The America 2000 litany with its "four big trains moving simultaneously down four parallel tracks'' and its gimmicky "A-Plus for Breaking the Mold Schools'' has worn out its welcome while demeaning our public schools and the people who serve them.

But relief at their departure should be short-lived. For brief though it was, the Alexander regime offers a smorgasbord of timely cautions on how not to help the schools.

Alongside the portrait of Lamar Alexander in the corridor leading to the Secretary of Education's office at 400 Maryland Avenue, S.W., Washington, D.C. 20202 there should hang a plaque spotlighting these Ten Misguided Commandments for making a mockery of school reform and transforming a responsible federal presence into an exercise in public-relations huckstering:

  • Avoid issues of poverty, culture, race, and class. Make no distinctions among education's target constituencies. Rich, poor, urban, suburban, homeless, black, brown, yellow, red, rural, immigrants--their problems are the same. A rising tide lifts all vessels.
  • Leapfrog and impugn your natural allies: superintendents, boards, principals, teachers, and other school professionals. Treat them, with scattered exceptions, as technicians and self-promoting opportunists. They are the enemy.
  • Surround yourself with ideologues, politicians, and the plutocrats of K-12 education. Boast that the most strident critic of public schools in the nation is a key adviser and architect of your reform plan. This is guaranteed to alienate and infuriate the fat cats in education's executive suites.
  • Proclaim your total accessibility to the mass media, and cultivate, in particular, opinion-shaping pundits who never write on education. They're kind of lazy and are suckers for undocumented and unprovable assertions about our failing schools.
  • Sidestep all discussion of money--your own and that contained in school budgets. Respond to rash outbursts like Jonathan Kozol's Savage Inequalities by citing certain cities, especially Washington, as examples of how equitable investment doesn't lead to improved test scores or student behavior.
  • Ignore your $30 billion agency. All it does is dish out taxpayer dollars and issue ding-a-ling regulations for a bunch of overfunded boondoggles. Avoid all but the most necessary contact with your department's permanent staffers. They are in league with public school people and their rapacious associations.
  • Emphasize that public education is skidding while private schools are surging. Downgrade all reports that show rising school or student achievement. Remember: The bottle is half empty, not half full.
  • Nurture civilized personal relations with individual members of Congress, but vilify the institution and its cumbersome processes. Threaten Presidential vetoes of hard-negotiated legislation supported by members of your own party. Portray Congress as completely out of touch and focus.
  • Do and say as little as possible about the social mission of the schools. They aren't human-services agencies; their purpose is to impart the academic basics. The family, the church, and American business can do the rest, even, or especially, in the cities.
  • Blur the distinction between cheerleading and hard digging. Stress salesmanship, slogans, pep rallies, conference calls, and media events rather than the heavy personal sacrifice and outlays of hard cash that serious change demands.

The Bush-Alexander prescriptions were a melange of ideological proclamations and simplistic pieties that substituted partisan advocacy for real leadership. They sidetracked today's realities to focus on an ill-defined future. Progress meant privatization and reinventing the wheel--what is so original in anything the New American Schools Development Corporation is likely to come up with?--rather than servicing the whole vehicle. Few institutional footprints will remain after four years of a phony education Presidency.

The incoming education team is taking center stage at a good time. The idea of school improvement is implanted in the national psyche. Though the larger public may be unable to recite the Clinton-led governors' six national education goals (no amount of historical revisionism can transfer their co-authorship to George Bush, as Lamar Alexander tried to do), it isn't about to reject the helping hand that Washington can offer.

No one should expect miracles of the semi-newcomers who will run the Clinton-era U.S. Education Department. The time of outsized federal responses has passed. In case we need reminding, the national government's portion of the tab for public education still hovers around the 6 percent mark with little prospect for a significant hike. And even in the legitimate education Presidency ahead of us, the Education Department is likely to remain a third-tier Cabinet agency in company with the departments of Transportation, Veterans Affairs, and Housing and Urban Development.

Genuine Presidential leadership in education is nevertheless a given from Jan. 20, 1993, on. Awesomely informed and deeply motivated, Bill Clinton will reach far beyond buzzwords and symbols to offer a reality-grounded agenda for a federal leadership role. But Washington isn't Little Rock, not by the longest of long shots, and this most education-minded chief executive since Thomas Jefferson will only sometimes be able to immerse himself in the nitty-gritty of school issues as he did in Arkansas. The struggle for his time and mind will be an hourly battle among the nation's and the world's most skillful in-fighters. Educators are not usually in that league.

From Day One, those who will inhabit the bottom four floors of 400 Maryland must resist the temptations of the Ten Misguided Commandments. Taking their cue from the new President, they must move quickly to place substance over image, practice above theory (or, for the past two years, educational theology), and can-do optimism ahead of ideologically inspired negativism.

The newest generation of appointed feds will need a keen sense of the limits and credibility of Washington's role in education. Both have been severely abused since 1981. Straight shooting has become an alien concept in the upper reaches of the Education Department, where the partisan politicization of intrinsically nonpolitical issues has become the rule rather than the exception.

The permanent members of the Senior Executive Service, the folks who do the real work, possess a huge institutional memory. The new kids on the block would be well advised to tap into it, often and deeply, even though ignoring the past and those who can recount its lessons is a bipartisan affliction. History usually begins on the day a new Administration takes office. But it is worth noting that the stewardships of the two federal education chiefs who used in-house expertise most tellingly, Francis Keppel and Harold Howe 2nd in the 1960's, still stand as the most effective since World War II.

If proportion and plausibility are to be restored, honest cooperation with Congress, state and urban officialdom, and the nation's school people merit the loftiest priority. Whatever the content and messages of the Clinton script for education, it will take hard, blue-collar-type work to regain public faith in Washington as an honorable player in the educational-policy game. It surely didn't happen in 1991 and 1992, when parents were encouraged to send their kids to religious schools (four-fifths of American private education) and junk the public schools.

The forthcoming national advertising campaign to publicize the governors' six goals may help remind us of the dimensions of the job ahead--as long as it doesn't descend to bombast or cuteness, which are usually the main characteristics of public-awareness drives. Professions of support for education writ large are already a lock. Far less secure, though, is popular acknowledgment that our two-class public school system is widening the critical gap between classes in America. If this growing separation isn't stopped, narrowed, and finally eliminated, a matter that received far too little attention in the recent Presidential campaign, the consequences could be mind-boggling. Not to mention life-threatening for the equal-opportunity society we profess to cherish.

Here, then, is the core issue for the rest of the 1990's, and it falls well within the federal province. The new Administration's wish list for education and the human services should proceed from it. For unless public schools everywhere, but especially in the cities, are suitably equipped, safe, and receptive to children of all backgrounds, which is not now the case, even the most creative Clinton-backed job-training programs are foredoomed.

The explosion of education legislation during the Presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson stemmed from an overriding preoccupation with civil rights and equal economic opportunity. It may seem late in the game to be returning to them, but return we must, and the sooner the better. The federal government has the authority, the experience, and the smarts to set us back on the track. This may prove to be the real testing ground of the Clinton Administration.

George R. Kaplan, who writes on education and politics, is a frequent commentator on federal education policy.

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